To centralize or not to centralize: how will contact tracing apps work within the EU?

As the fight against COVID-19 continues, contact tracing applications are seen as a part of the solution to slow down the virus until a vaccine arrives

By: Vanessa Balintec, Jacob South-Klein and Harvey Kong

The coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11th 2020. Since then, the EU has witnessed large-scale outbreaks throughout member states, and is now slowly starting to consider lifting lockdown procedures. (Gustavo Fring/Pexels) 

Across the world, countries are in the process of designing and implementing mobile applications to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

However, the EU faces a difficult task in helping member states craft and deploy their apps effectively. Each member state is responsible for their own pandemic-fighting strategies, post-pandemic recoveries, and ultimately the contact tracing technology they use for both – whilst also continuing to rely on the co-operation of their neighbours across borders.

But the question remains: how specifically can this be done? Can the EU present a united front on what is a divisive issue, without threatening the fabric of future relations domestically and internationally?

What is digital contact tracing? 

Digital contact tracing is largely being seen as a significant tool in controlling the virus after lockdown by tracking down people who have the virus via GPS location or Bluetooth detection, alerting that they need to be isolated, and then alerting others they have been in contact with. This has significant advantages over manual contact tracing, which is time and labour intensive. 

On April 15th, The European Union released a set of toolbox guidelines for member states to consult when designing contact tracing apps. Differing methods of collecting and storing user data are being discussed, with two main ideas dividing states: a centralized system that stores user data on a consolidated server to quicken the process in tracking people down, and a decentralized system that stores anonymous user data on the phone itself. 

As of late, the conversation is being dominated by experts and privacy watchdogs concerned that a centralized system leaves citizens vulnerable to surveillance and misuse of their information, which goes directly against existing European privacy standards.

Renew Europe Member and Danish MEP Karen Melchior believes there is not a convincing enough argument to warrant subscribing to a centralized model, let alone having select countries implement it while others do not.

“I think there is also the added advantage of the decentralized model that people have more confidence and trust than a centralized model, and that would increase the uptake,” says Melchior.

“The arguments for a centralized model are statistics and useful research, but I think the research needs to be kept separate from the actual proximity tracing and tracking of the virus, so that we don’t give people mixed signals and undermine trust.”

What about privacy rights?

Europe has been seen as a champion of digital privacy rights since its introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, a set of rules organizations must follow if they target or collect data belonging to people living in the EU.

Only under very specific conditions are governments, companies and organizations allowed to collect or reuse personal information. According to the GDPR, these rights are not absolute, and can be revoked in times when it would be deemed conducive to public interest and public health – which now extends into collecting and storing more information than usual when using apps to fight the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although contact tracing apps are in developmental stages, concerns have been raised as to whether or not citizens will even use these apps once they are available. A lack of trust and understanding in the data tracking technology, in conjunction with a lack of interest due to inconvenience and voluntary use, have led some studies to show that the apps will only prove to be effective if a certain threshold of the citizen population are using it. 

Privacy watchdog Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the European Data Protection Supervisor, has publicly called for the EU to build a pan-European model of a “COVID-19 mobile application”, coordinated at an EU level and ideally with the World Health Organization’s collaboration to ensure global data protection from the start. At an EU level, Wiewiórowski says the EDPS as a whole will work together with the Commission to ensure app initiatives are temporary, limited, and transparent.

“The crisis will not be finished in weeks,” writes Wiewiórowski.

“It will take months to fight with it and years to recover. If we are so connected with each other, we will not be able to solve it with national tools only. The more European our answer, the better results we will gain.”

Collaboration between states and companies is essential 

Whether these two methods are preferred and chosen by a state is only the first step in launching an app – cooperation with large tech companies Apple and Google is essential in being able to implement these apps on a mass scale.

However, to date, the two tech giants have been hesitant to relax their own privacy policies for governments and are remaining firm in upholding their established privacy standards.

In an unprecedented move, the two companies have decided to work together to build a “comprehensive solution” using their technology to work with public health authorities in tracking the virus.

Apple states that both companies will release application programming interfaces (APIs) enabling interoperability between its own iOS framework and Google Android-driven phones using public health authority apps, which will be available for download when released through respective app stores. In the coming months, a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing system will be built into “underlying platforms” that will allow users more options in disclosing their user data and interacting with public health authorities if they choose to.

According to Reuters, Germany has recently U-turned in their stance – away from the centralized system, Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (or PEPP-PT) to a decentralized system called Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (or DP3T).

Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, are planning to follow the standards set by companies Apple and Google, while the UK, Norway, and France are facing criticism for choosing to continue with PEPP-PT, piling pressure on the tech companies to bow to revised device settings in order for the apps to run on their devices.

Some countries are pursuing a completely different path: Belgium has shelved the national contact tracing app discussion for now, and is opting to focus on manual contact tracing instead. 

Will the apps work throughout the EU?

Beyond country borders, a significant question mark remains as to whether or not these apps can work across other member states.

Political science professor Derek Beach from The University of Aarhus in Denmark believes apps will need to be able to “talk” to one another in order to achieve a full, EU-wide pandemic recovery.

“What if I have an app in Denmark, with all the contact tracing, and then I go to Hamburg for the weekend, and I disappear? I maybe have the virus and [start] transmitting it to people, but it’s basically dark,” says Beach.

“At one point the borders are gonna need to be opened. If we’re gonna get the borders opened, the only way that that’s going to happen is if our exit strategies are coordinated.”

Danish MEP Karen Melchior is championing an EU-wide app protocol to help ensure country borders are able to re-open and ultimately allow member citizens to travel freely once again.

“It’s really important to use the same model for collecting and sharing the data for who you’ve been close to – which phones you’ve been close to – because we want the different national systems to be interoperable with each other, so we can start traveling between countries again,” says Melchior.

“And if we have some countries using a decentralized model and some countries using a centralized model, then as far as I know, they are not interoperable and therefore we can’t exchange information about somebody having traveled somewhere else – and then was tested positive.”

Despite the ongoing debate surrounding the intricacies and effectiveness of contact tracing apps, they likely do carry potential in slowing down and managing the virus as countries gradually crawl out from the coronavirus fall-out.

In time, whether deemed a successful solution or not, governments and public health authorities of the future will look back upon this important time as responsible for setting a technological precedent for use in crises to come.

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